Obituary: Vice-Rector, Professor Emeritus Nils-Erik Saris (1928–2023)

Professor Nils-Erik Saris passed away on 20 January 2023 in Helsinki at the age of 94. He was born in Helsinki on 2 November 1928. Saris served as the Swedish-language professor of medical chemistry at the Faculty of Medicine from 1972 to 1993 and as the second vice-rector of the University from 1989 to 1992.

In his first years, Nils-Erik Saris toured Europe with his conductor father, his mother and an orchestra. When he was five, the family settled in Helsinki, where he attended Brobergska läroverket for gossar och flickor, the first coeducational school in Finland. Nils-Erik took the Finnish matriculation examination in 1947, immediately continuing to study at the University of Helsinki. He had a broad interest in the natural sciences and studied biology, zoology, physics, chemistry and mathematics. Nils-Erik ended up specialising in biochemistry, completing a master’s degree in science in 1953, followed by a licentiate and doctorate in philosophy in 1956 and 1964, respectively.

In 1951, Nils-Erik was admitted as a summer trainee in a group headed by Professor J.K. Miettinen at the Biochemical Research Institute. His task was to determine by experimentation the starch type best suited to the recently developed chromatography of amino acids. When the time came to complete a special assignment, Artturi I. Virtanen asked whether Nils-Erik would be willing to investigate the quantity of nitrogen compounds transferring from the air to the soil in rain. AIV was interested in finding out whether plants receive nitrogen also through this process. He promised Nils-Erik a small monthly fee if he kept it between themselves. Nils-Erik at once agreed, serving as a specialised worker until 1953.

After graduating with a master’s degree in science in 1953, Nils-Erik continued as a research assistant at AIV’s laboratory until 1956. Having established his family, Nils-Erik applied for the better-paying job of chemist at Aurora Hospital, where he began standardising the units of measurement and the quality control of analyses. In his own words, Nils-Erik was the most unpopular hospital chemist in Finland at the time, but the work was necessary, as techniques and measurement units varied between hospitals. For these merits, specialists in hospital chemistry founded the Saris prize, the first of which was awarded to Nils-Erik in 1995. He continued as a hospital chemist and chief chemist at the Helsinki University Central Hospital until his appointment as Swedish-language professor of medical chemistry at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki. He served in the position until 1993.

Nils-Erik completed several research periods in Europe, the Soviet Union and Russia and, longest of all, in the United States from 1958 to 1959 at the University of Philadelphia’s Eldridge Reeves Johnson Foundation for Medical Physics – for which the scholarship check arrived two months late. While awaiting the check, Nils-Erik subsisted primarily on bananas discarded at markets, and ever thereafter would refuse to eat the fruit.

From 1966 onwards, Nils-Erik supervised roughly half a dozen doctoral theses each year. He was an excellent teacher and supervisor, always giving his students plenty of freedom to carry out their own plans. Before retirement, he also served as the second vice-rector of the University of Helsinki from 1989 to 1992.

Naturally, Nils-Erik did not give up his research upon retirement. Indeed, he continued with his favourite topic, the mitochondrial calcium pump, producing another 35 publications after his retirement. The discovery of the calcium pump in mitochondria in the early 1960s was a significant achievement, yet, having been published only in a domestic journal, went largely unnoticed in the rest of the world. Nils-Erik published his last scholarly article in 2022, at the age of 93, together with his Russian colleagues.

Nils-Erik was active in several organisations as secretary, deputy chair and chair, for which he was rewarded with honorary membership in the Finnish Union of Chemists, Finnish Society of Clinical Chemistry, the Finnish Chemical Society and the Mecidinarklubben Thorax association. He was also a member of the Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters from 1978, and in 1990 was conferred with an honorary doctorate in medicine and surgery at the University of Helsinki.

In addition to science and research, he was characterised by humanism, coordinating for several years visits by students from the Winston-Salem State University, representing minorities, to various research groups at the University of Helsinki. American students got to experience Nils-Erik’s kindness as soon as they arrived at the airport and found themselves transported by him personally to their various apartments in the city. The same kind treatment was extended to countless partners and visiting scholars from the research institutes of the former Soviet Union. They too arrived in Finland at Nils-Erik’s invitation, several times a year.

Nils-Erik was a very sociable person, and he enjoyed being the last person to leave a party when he was younger. He was known for often standing on his head at celebrations. He brought students, colleagues and international visitors to his home, sometimes even at Christmas. His first marriage was to classmate and dentist Eva Wollitz, with whom he had three children. By the time of his death, Nils-Erik’s biological relations would include 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Eva died of cancer in 1979. Nils-Erik entered into his second marriage with pharmacist Margita Lund, who had also been in the same class with him. Through Margita, he gained a number of stepchildren and their offspring.

As a young man, Nils-Erik was physically active, reaching 1.80 m in high jump with the scissor technique. He was not particularly conventional in nature, and on a hot day he could be hunting butterflies in the fells of Lapland with nothing on but his shoes. He liked to swim, fish and, in later years, tend his garden. He often cycled to work, and on snowy days sometimes even skied from the Kaivopuisto district to work at Siltavuorenpenger. Many people remember him as kind, amiable and always smiling. As the hours drew longer and the celebrations continued, many became familiar with his good sense of humour and excellent social skills. Life was never boring with Nisse.

Marc Baumann

Per Saris

Mårten Wikström

The authors are Nils-Erik’s son and colleagues.